Monday, May 4, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: La Tragedie De Carmen

La Tragédie de Carmen Fascinates, But Falls Short of Gripping

Sandra Piques Eddy and Noah Stewart as Carmen and Don José in La Tragédie De Carmen at Chicago Opera Theater

It is all too rare that performers in operas actually fit their descriptions. How many Mimis from La Boheme have actually been thin and consumptive? How likely is it to find an authentically Japanese Madame Butterfly? And when was the last time that Carmen was sexy? Chicago Opera Theater's production of La Tragédie de Carmen, adapted by Peter Brook and Marius Constant from Bizet's legendary opera, has an exceptionally sexy Carmen in Sandra Piques Eddy. With a dark and enticing voice and fearless physicality, she makes you believe that a man would destroy his life for her. The problems, however, start with the other end of the central relationship. Noah Stewart's Don José has a stunning voice, and is believable enough as a soldier, but only in isolated flashes do we see the man destroyed by passion, the mutual sexual combustibility that would lead two people off a cliff. And without that, this production, despite its many exceptional qualities, never grabs you by the throat.

Brook, the legendary theatre director, and avant-garde composer Constant performed some pretty radical surgery on the original opera in the early 1980's: There are only 6 actors playing seven characters--the chorus is gone. The show is radically cut, down to only 80 minutes, and there are only 15 players in the orchestra. The music is reordered, reassigned and in one case, a recording.

I'm not an expert on the original, but Brook and Constant have created an exciting and satisfying play. The story is told sparely, but it's always easy to follow, and the show really moves and excites.

The production, however, somehow fails to grab. The virtues are many: in addition to Stewart's voice and Eddy's everything, the cast boasts a delicious, non-singing performance from Steppenwolf stalwart Rick Snyder in two small roles, as well as strong work from Michael Todd Simpson's Escamillo. (Krenare Gashi's histrionic and amateurish Michaela falls firmly into the debit column, though.) The 15-piece orchestra, under Alexander Platt, sounds amazing--especially percussionist Michael Folker, whose tympani playing during the Habanera is stunning. Chuck Coyl's fights actually look like they could do serious damage, and Christine Binder's lighting is exceptionally dramatic and exciting.

So what keeps this engaging, admirable show from being gripping? The aforementioned spotty chemistry is a serious issue, certainly. The Harris Theatre, at 1500 seats, is way too big for this show--I kept imagining how much better it would work in Northlight's space. (By the way, whoever decided to paint the lobby of the Harris with whitewash and then place neon lights in various lurid shades all over it should be banned from ever designing another theatre.) In the end, though, this production doesn't go far enough. To make this borderline melodramatic story work, the production needs more--more sex, more violence, more excitement. The show is still well worth seeing, especially for lovers of Bizet and Brook, but it never quite closes the deal.

La Tragédie de Carmen plays May 10 at 3 PM and May 13 and 15 at 7:30 PM at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. Tickets are $17.50-120, and can be purchased by visiting


Shawna said...

I liked the show well enough, but the singer playing Carmen was so obviously pregnant that I really had suspend disbelief when she was vamping the men. She also waddled a bit on that raked stage. But she did sing beautifully.

Zev Valancy said...

It says something about the size of the Harris--from Row T I really couldn't tell. (Good costume design too.)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but Sandra Eddy is not pregnant.

Zev Valancy said...

And the debate rages. Anyone have a definitive answer?

Anonymous said...

Yes she is quite pregnant.
Here is a blog entry that clearly shows her with child:

Zev Valancy said...

I don't see it--or at least it doesn't seem like unmistakable pregnancy--but what do I know?

Anyone have an opinion on the actual show?